Nearbaseline Genemods

Image from Bernd Helfert

"Over five or six hundred years, all sorts of experiments were undertaken, but somehow in these modern times most babies continue to be born by the traditional method — catch as catch can."
   — Alexei Panshin, Starwell

"The tenor of the time had generally turned against such outlandishness and people had mostly returned to looking more like people over the last millennium, albeit assuredly pretty good-looking people, but still, some part of one's appearance was initially at least left to luck and the random nature of genetic inheritance"
   — Iain M. Banks, Excession

Of all the Terragen clades and superclades the human nearbaselines have perhaps changed the least from their original Old Earth progenitors. Although there is huge diversity a common "average" nearbaseline is superficially similar to a typical baseline human of Old Earth — perhaps a little larger and stronger and more alert and attractive than the normal baseline, but otherwise unremarkable, with the usual brown skin and black hair. True, there are populations of many billions who are all chubby, red-haired and freckled linguistic geniuses, or slender, black-skinned, two-meter-tall mathematician/musicians with slanted eyes, or all blue-grey skinned heavy-gravity pygmies with faces decked out in the colours of a mandrill who have a talent for gymnastics and martial arts, or empaths with big green eyes and soft brown fur. However most nearbaselines could pass for a good-looking local in one of Old Earth's Information Age societies. Were a typical modern nearbaseline transported back to Old Earth as it was before the Interplanetary Era she might be mistaken for a particularly vital and intelligent Polynesian. Most present-day nearbaselines are still interfertile with the ancient baseline human stock, though that concept might strike even the lowest status plebhu of the present era as rather repugnant.

In addition to what an Old Earth baseline human would have regarded as an extraordinarily rich and supportive upbringing, training in dozens of highly sophisticated techniques and a fantastic degree of wealth and technical support (not to mention the self-assurance that goes with such things), typical nearbaselines are genetically as well as environmentally gifted in a host of ways. Most of these genetic differences between human nearbaselines and their baseline ancestors are not immediately apparent but are evident only after some observation For instance nearbaselines are inherently more resistant to disease and injury, potentially more talented in multiple areas, more emotionally stable and physically faster and stronger than a typical baseline human. This is not to say that there are not "naturally" sickly, stupid, ugly, or unstable individuals in modern human nearbaseline populations, but they are quite rare and in most cases education, technical support, and postnatal gene mods disguise and completely override any such inborn infirmities.

The reason that nearbaselines are so difficult to distinguish from their ancestral stock is that the nearbaseline population has left the original H. sapiens line behind not by some single radical change but through a series of much smaller increments and minor tinkering with the gene line. Traits selected by parents have been the same as those that any human parent throughout history has hoped for; those leading to a person who is happy, successful in the existing society, and of course attractive and understandable to the parents themselves. On occasions when this has failed children have frequently taken matters into their own hands and tried heritable postnatal modifications in an attempt to fit in or get ahead in human society. Those who were able to attract mates (or otherwise acquire the rights and resources for reproduction) were much more likely to pass on their genetic heritage. These three levels of choice (parental, personal and reproductive) have driven all of the change in the nearbaseline genome in the millennia since the advent of reliable genetic engineering. Individuals with particularly odd traits have tended seek out others like themselves and form separate clades or subclades, thereby leaving the nearbaseline gene pool entirely. Occasional attempts at interference by sapient-led political organizations or Great Leaders and the more persistent and subtle influence of various interested transapients have also been factors. The conflicting goals of such powers, though they may have affected billions of lives at any one time, have apparently tended to cancel one another out in the big picture. In the Gardens of the Gods, humans are still the weeds.

For all of that there are some common trends to human nearbaseline development. The following are some of the general categories of genetic traits that have become common in nearbaseline populations in the last ten millennia. The traits listed below range from moderately common to nearly ubiquitous, but none is universal. Nearbaseline diversity is tremendous, greater by far than that of the original species. For ease of understanding the modifications are listed by category.

Cosmetic Mods

These are a rather unreliable group of traits because they are subject to fashions and cultural prejudices. Only the most general are listed. Changes to innate baseline preferences have also been possible, but these have usually been part of the creation of entirely new clades (the Alchemists would be a good example of this). Most cosmetic mods are for traits that the baseline human population, or at least a subset of it, would find attractive.

1. Increased symmetry: A reliable attractor in all biological species from beetles to brontosaurs, possibly because it indicates good developmental health. Nearbaselines are on the average more symmetrical, partly because of course they have that same good developmental health and partly because of specific genes for enhanced symmetry.

2. Supernormal features: Most bionts find certain key features attractive if they are exaggerated slightly beyond the population's norm (thus "supernormal stimulus," a term from early animal behaviour studies). An exaggeration of traits that are generally considered to be attractive is seen in classical Greek statues and many drawings of "ideal" humans (higher brows, more prominent chins, bigger eyes, longer legs, etc.). Analysis shows that these figures are actually just a shade outside the baseline human range and just one shade short of looking monstrous, as even very slight further exaggeration shows. If the gene-sculptors are not careful the children of two such people might actually cross that line and be ugly. In the past natural selection tended to been trim back these exaggerated traits because some of them present practical problems in the day-to-day world. Similarly, in historical populations some traits originally selected by parents have been edited out by later generations as impractical. This process is even speedier than natural selection.

3. Sexual dimorphism: Actually a subcategory of supernormal features. As in the case of the more general category, this tendency has been trimmed back a bit over time from some initial excesses. Women with gigantic breasts, or men with huge genitals, lots of chest hair and massive flowing beards tend to get their traits altered to something closer to the norm for the sake of convenience if nothing else (they might sue their parents, too, if they are particularly indignant about it, depending on the customs of their polities). Also, the children of such unions tend back towards a more androgynous mean unless the traits are carefully sex-linked; in following generations the boys may show traits which were considered attractive in their mothers but are not masculine enough for the local standard and the girls may have features that are unacceptably mannish in the local culture. The net result in nearbaseline populations has been that their men and women are slightly, but only slightly, more different from one another in appearance than they were in Old Earth's baseline populations.

4. Fashion has led in the past to individuals or whole populations who show extreme adherence to a racial type. This may be an Old Earth population, a famous population type from later in Terragen history or even an imitation of some group from works of fantastic fiction. So, in some times and in some places there have been large numbers of people who chose to look like idealized Old Earth Maoris, Kikuyu, Swedes, Han, Vietnamese, Pygmies or Inuit, or like famous colonial types from the Early Federation era, or for that matter like "elves," "dwarves" of fantasy literature, or like members of various humanoid species from famous science fiction stories. This has tended to promote diversity and preserve physical types that might have vanished by admixture. On the one hand, once established these populations do tend to choose mates of somewhat similar appearance. On the other hand such exotics tend to attract attention and be re-absorbed into the general nearbaseline population over the next few generations. The net result is an increase in diversity within the nearbaseline population. Some individuals and populations with idealized archaic features are a result of "retro abo" movements. Sometimes, of course, the re-combinations of these features produce individuals or populations that would be quite unusual looking by Old Earth standards even if the elements themselves are not particularly remarkable.

5. Harmonious and wide-ranging voice, often somewhat deeper and more resonant than the norm in baseline stock (since this tends to give a social advantage). Good control over a wider range of volumes than most baselines can manage (louder shouts, quieter whispers).

6. Attractive skin colors. This includes stronger versions of the original variations, from extremely dark brown to nearly transparent, with or without freckling and with or without a yellowish tinge and with or without a pink or coppery undertone. Added to this are grey and blue-grey colours, true white and perhaps some of the subtler dusky reddish colours. Green (possibly from symbiotic algae), sparkly or iridescent markings, strong Mandrill-like reds and blues, stripes or spots and skin color that varies via chromatophores tend to be found outside the mainstream of nearbaseline populations in subclades but are a definite element in the nearbaseline population as well.

7. Smooth, unblemished skin. Extreme variations away from this form (scaly skin, wrinkly skin, sharkskin, etc.) tend to lead to minor subclades outside the nearbaseline population.

8. Pleasant body odor. This is still typically musky and contains some of the ancient human pheromones but it is less rank than that of most baseline humans and sometimes includes some odors typical of the subtler Old Earth perfumes.

9. Attractive hair. This might be anything from very thick to very fine and anything from straight to woolly but is generally dense, shiny and healthy-looking rather than lank or greasy. Body hair is usually reduced from its original baseline extent in both men and women except for pubic and head hair. Hairlessness, extreme hairiness or actual smooth and silky pelts are usually local or subclade traits.

10. Height. Overall, those who are a little taller have a slight but measurable social advantage over otherwise identical individuals. This resulted in an overall increase in average human height that eventually stabilized at about 180 centimeters (though with some strong regional variation).

11. Weight control. Genes for survival in starvation situations are a liability in a food-rich environment as they may cause considerable weight gain. In some cultures the original baseline genotype has been maintained. This requires customs that encourage a high physical activity level and attention to the quantity and quality of foods. In others these genes were considered detrimental and the set of "thrifty" adaptations was eliminated. As a result "thrifty" genes are rarer among nearbaselines than among the original stock. This is somewhat compensated by modifications allowing control of the basal metabolic rate.

Physiological Mods

1. Fertility under conscious control. The default condition is infertility, but with some easily learned biofeedback a woman may release a viable egg and a man may produce functional sperm. The female reproductive system does not cycle under its own control as it does in baseline women, but like fertility is under some degree of conscious control. Unlike baseline women, whose entire lifetime supply of eggs is created before they are born, nearbaseline women may produce additional gametes, and can reproduce if they so choose at advanced ages.

2. Typically basal metabolic rate is under conscious control, with some training. This enables burning off of excess calories, heating in cold situations or hibernation. It is convenient, and occasionally a lifesaver.

3. Vitamins that required special environmental conditions such as UV-rich sunlight (like vitamin D) or specific intestinal flora (like some of the B vitamins) are produced naturally by the body and not required in the diet. The same applies to critical amino acids. Even on a limited diet such nearbaselines are less vulnerable to deficiency diseases than their baseline ancestors. These traits are particularly common in nearbaselines who are descended from early colonists.

4. Ability to produce cellulase and therefore digest foods high in cellulose. Note that this does not confer the ability to live entirely on grasses and leaves, since such materials are physically tough and bulky and would require much larger jaws and a larger stomach. This is another common trait in colonists and explorers or their descendants.

5. Pain shutoff. This is something that baselines with the proper training could already do to some degree, at least for most sorts of injuries. This trait has been enhanced to make the training easier. It still requires training, since otherwise children would damage themselves before they had learned good judgment.

6. Local adaptations: switchable UV protection without production of melanin, heavy gravity adaptations, ability to function in CO2 rich atmospheres, etc. Some of these are locally common but few are common across the whole population of nearbaselines.

7. Microgravity adaptations. Since even those who don't live there might have to live for periods of time in microgravity or are likely to have ancestors who lived for generations outside a gravitational field, this is an extremely common set of traits. This set of adaptations includes bones that don't lose calcium in microgravity, immunity to vertigo in space, some switchable changes to the circulatory and lymphatic systems and a number of other traits which are all invisible to the human eye.

8. Adaptations to some industrial toxins. This includes immunity or resistance to heavy metal poisoning, an ability to metabolize or otherwise counteract small quantities of formaldehydes, fullerenes, phthalates, polychlorinated biphenyls and most of the other common byproducts of or contaminants in many modern products. Presence of such traits is spotty and unpredictable in nearbaseline populations but most individuals are resistant to one or more such hazards.

9. Enhanced immunity. Rapid response to pathogens (which are rare in the usual nearbaseline environment to begin with), and few or no allergies. The baseline connection between the immune system and the brain has been enhanced to allow some conscious intervention with simple training.

10. A side effect of these and many other mods is an increased need for calories. Since the availability of food has rarely been an issue in civilized societies this development has gone unchecked. Most nearbaselines have what a baseline would regard as a ravenous appetite. An efficient digestive system and a naturally rich diet somewhat compensate for this trait.

Mental and Emotional Mods

In many cases these have been copied from successful models in clades outside the nearbaseline gene pool or are the result of admixture with more distinctive clades. Many nearbaseline traits in this area are actually the result of an enriched childhood environment, highly advanced teaching techniques, access to extensive data and other factors. These alone produce levels of performance that an Old Earth human would have found astounding, but nearbaselines have the additional advantage of genetic aptitudes in these areas.

1. The "lucky" modification. Most nearbaselines have this combination of optimism and alertness to one degree or another.

2. Innate ability to pick up a written language much like the baseline talent for spoken language (slearner and ilearner mods).

3. Innate calculating ability (from a very small cluster of specialized brain cells). An extremely common mod, though not universal.

4. Perfect pitch, innate rhythm detection and sophisticated ability to recognize harmony and melody.

5. Larger and more complex brain. There is an upper limit that cannot be exceeded for aesthetic and safety reasons, but the larger overall body size of nearbaselines makes this limit somewhat higher than for the original baseline stock. Improvements in teaching techniques and basic neural architecture have allowed the creation of more "braininess" per volume of grey matter. Some of the more radical forms of these mods are paths to the creation of superbright clades.

6. Empathy skills. This is derived from better mental models of other minds as well as from innate sensitivity to nonverbal communication (body language, facial expression and vocal inflection) which in turn grants heightened ability to gauge others' emotional states.

7. Improved coordination and spatial sense (mostly from improvements to the cerebellum).

8. Switchable attention span. This is in part an ability gained with age and training, but genetic engineering has made this skill easier to learn. The different brainwave patterns of nearbaselines who are under attack, meditating, trying to understand a difficult communication in the safety of eir home, or in some complex situation requiring diffuse attention and immediate action differ more radically from one another than might the brainwave patterns of a baselines who are attempting the same feats.

9. Increased mental/neurological plasticity. This was a controversial mod when it first appeared. It allows rapid learning and personality change by incorporating some of the traits of young children in the adult. Some have this at a constant, low level, but such persons are subject to significant personality change over time and are vulnerable to hostile memetic attacks. More commonly this is a switchable ability, and when someone contemplates a significant change of lifestyle or career a greater degree of neuronal plasticity (including the generation of entirely new neurons) is initiated for a short period of time. Significant personality change is a side effect of this mod.

10. Fixable memory. This is partly a matter of advanced training that is available even to those without this genetic advantage. Experiences that an individual is determined not to forget are retained to the least detail (like the "photographic memory" of some unusual baselines). This is a switchable ability to prevent the memory from becoming too cluttered with trivia. With training it is also possible to erase rather than merely suppress memories. This is an ability that needs to be used with some caution, and the necessary skills to use it are not usually taught until individuals reach the age of majority for their respective cultures.

11. "Instinctive" safety responses. The most common such mod is an instinctive ability to swim. Most nearbaselines can maneuver and remain afloat even if they have never been in an open body of water and have never been taught to swim, though complex strokes and rapid swimming techniques must still be learned. Automatic responses to sudden air pressure loss and exposure to vacuum are also common. Such innate responses have saved the lives of many an infant, child or untrained adult

12. Inducible Incubation (also known as inspiration on tap). Radically improving the psychological phenomenon of incubation (wherein novel solutions to a problem are formed subconsciously) this complicated mod allows for nearbaselines to consciously initiate incubation and increases the capability of the incubation process. Whilst this ability is biologically programmed it takes mental training to utilise to full effect before eventually becoming second nature after years of practice. In practise a nearbaseline may have a creative task that is troubling them or that they don’t wish to bother with consciously. They enter a light meditative state (skilled users can do this without any external sign, less capable users may have to sit/lie in a quiet space) in which they consciously outline the problem and a vague desired outcome, these thoughts then drift into the subconscious. From this point the user is dimly aware of the incubation process taking place in their subconscious but have to do nothing to maintain it. At regular or significant intervals fully formed ideas will manifest consciously until the process is complete (or cancelled via prearranged "code thoughts"). Whilst baseline humans may be limited in what answers incubation can give them nearbaselines are far more capable. They could, for example, incubate a thesis/action plan/engineering solution given enough time and the required knowledge.

Skilled users can incubate multiple complex ideas at once; however this can lead to a dissociative state and their perception of the world becomes increasingly "hazy". This can be compensated for by a period of natural sleep, since this naturally enhances the incubation process (though the user will experience strange dreams). Despite the advantages this genemod grants, many nearbaselines in the current era do not bother to receive the training to use it. This is due to the far superior alternatives available such as intelligent software assistants, DNI mediated intelligence augmentation and homo superior level mental enhancements.

Even so this mod was popular for many centuries, and in places where more sophisticated augmentation is not available (or is taboo for various reasons) this mod is still highly valued. Using genemods of this kind can allow the user to work on a task without the use of external systems which might interfere with their daily life.

Sensory Mods

1. Acute daytime eyesight (extra density of cones in the retina; larger fovea). May include increased sensitivity to motion.

2. Improved color vision (sometimes with the addition of a fourth or fifth type of cone). Often includes enhanced visual range into the far-red and far-violet (usually accomplished by adding additional cone types).

3. Enhanced sense of smell. Much of this "enhancement" has been simple repair of the existing genes for chemical detection, especially those of the vomeronasal organ (which are nonfunctional in human nearbaselines and related baseline primates). Even in an artificial environment those with fully functional chemical senses have an advantage in that they can pick up subtle social cues via pheromones. The ability to detect some industrial toxins by smell is a common addition; it enhances survival in artificial habitats by allowing its bearers to detect unsafe air without mechanical assistance.

4. Improved night vision. This goes with slightly larger eyes (see cosmetic changes) and might in more extreme versions require a cat-like vertical pupil, though the latter is likely to be a local or subclade adaptation. In some populations a reflective surface on the back of the retina (a tapetum) also enhances night vision. This causes eyes to appear to "glow" in dim light like those of nocturnal mammals (the selection of a particular colour such as amber, green or red is a cosmetic choice). Higher density of rods in the retina and some tweaks to the movement of rods and cones in the retina allow improved night vision that does not affect the appearance of the eyes.

5. Increased acuity and frequency range of hearing. Enhanced acuity is a common side effect of adaptations to hab life in microgravity, since for reasons of economy such environments are commonly kept at less than one bar of atmospheric pressure, and sounds in thinner air do not propagate as easily.

6. A magnetic sense, comparable to that found in some other baseline vertebrate species. This is useful where planets or habs have associated magnetic fields, since it enhances the sense of direction. In some cases it also allows the bearer to detect "live" electrical wires.

Health/Practical Morphological Mods

1. Regenerating limbs and organs. This is usually achieved via the addition of genes from reptiles or amphibians. This includes the ability to re-grow permanent teeth and/or the ability to re-grow nerves after spinal cord injury. Some nearbaselines have the ability to generate new neurons if old ones are lost or damaged (which can lead to some personality change). Long term healing includes replacement of scar tissue with normal tissue.

2. Longevity. Natural life span (longevity without technological intervention) is such that most individuals can live for 500 years or more before actual rejuvenation treatments or other interventions are required to maintain health. Thousands of "defects" in the original nearbaseline genome have been modified to make this possible, including some which only become apparent in the fourth or fifth century of life. Advances in this field have slowed, in part because the compensatory technologies are generally available and in part because most individuals die by accident, murder or suicide before reaching 1,000 years of age.

3. Late maturation. This is a much later onset of sexual development than found in baselines and a further delayed development of the ability to reproduce. This mod was one of the earliest that parents sought out once increased longevity became the norm, and the inevitable difficulties that it caused were worked out millennia ago. Most nearbaselines develop their full physical size at about the time that their ancestors did but do not develop secondary sexual characteristics and desires until their third decade. They are not usually fertile until some time in their late fifties. This facilitates early learning and career development and helps to prevent ill-advised pregnancies. This mod is not universal but it is very common, usually as a geneline mod chosen by ambitious or cautious parents for their children.

4. Implant compatibility. This is modification of the immune system so that typical small implants such as communications uplinks, socket connections for operating local machinery or even extensive cyborgization can be added without irritating adjacent flesh. The immune system would be tuned to disregard specific substances used in such applications. In some individuals specific sites in the brain grow organs that either have DNI (direct neural interface) broadcast capabilities themselves or are compatible with nanotech implants. These typically begin as extremely narrow-band restricted access devices in children and grow to full capability as the individual matures.

Mods to Remove Deleterious Genes

This has often been a controversial subject because the definition of unfavorable traits is in part culture bound. Early in the development of the nearbaseline population hereditary traits such as Tay-Sachs disease, colour blindness, albinism, hemophilia, nearsightedness and gigantism were eliminated with little debate. Others, which had provided resistance to certain diseases when inherited as a single allele (i.e. sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis and thalassemia), were soon to follow once the diseases themselves were no longer a factor. The elimination of most starvation-resistance genes from the nearbaseline population (because as a side effect they produce obesity if food is plentiful) has already been noted. Genes for most forms of dwarfism have left the nearbaseline population, but not without the secession of some groups who chose to form separate clades instead. More controversial were attempts to remove the genetic basis of such traits as Attention Deficit Disorder, schizophrenia, autism, and a host of other mental traits. Many of these proved to be part of conditions that are favourable to the individual under the correct environmental and developmental prenatal and early childhood conditions even if they lead to disastrous disabilities under the wrong ones, and (in these more favourable forms) part of the natural toposophic variability that helps keep a human nearbaseline society healthy, so in the event many of these "defects" were retained or where they were eliminated there were long term undesirable consequences.

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Development Notes
Text by Stephen Inniss
inducible incubation material by Ryan B
Initially published on 18 February 2005.